The English Renaissance “Timeline”: Part II (23 December 2015)

Last week, I discussed illustrations, or “drawings,” of printed media from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book with the aim of thinking more broadly about the relation between printed media, visual culture, and memory in Renaissance England. This week, I’d like to explore these ideas further by turning to the work of another English Renaissance calligrapher, Esther Inglis:


Fig. 1   Self-Portrait of Esther Inglis. Folger MS V.a.91, Fol. 1v.[1] (Click here to zoom in.)

The second of five children, Inglis was born in London around 1570 to French Huguenot refugees Nicolas Langlois and Marie Presot.[2] Inglis was taught calligraphy by her mother – a “skilled scribe,” according to scholar Elspeth Yeo.[3] Inglis, like Fella, was also influenced by John de Beauchesne’s popular book on handwriting, A Booke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands (Fig. 2).[4]


Fig. 2   Example of “Italique Hande” from A booke containing divers sortes of hands (1602). FSL Collection. STC 6450.2. (Click here to zoom in).

In addition to being an accomplished calligrapher – indeed, “a woman known for her handwriting,” as Georgianna Ziegler describes in her blog post for The Collation – what is perhaps most remarkable about Inglis is that fifty-nine of her manuscripts are extant. However, I came across Inglis’s work in a sort of roundabout way – through the research I was doing on Thomas Fella, actually.

When I first began working on my dissertation prospectus about two years ago, I was using the database Arkyves to search for Renaissance depictions of Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses and the Greek personification of Memory, as the relation between memory, femininity, and practices of literary invention is of particular interest to me. Of the images that turned up in my search results, I was especially drawn to one of an emblem from Jean-Jacques Boissard’s Emblemes (1588). The legs of the table are carved in the shape of women, holding up the instruments of literary composition – paper and a quill:


Fig. 3   Boissard’s emblem[5]

I kept this image in a folder for dissertation research, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the emblem in relation to my dissertation. Last year, when I came across Fella’s commonplace book, I emailed Georgianna Ziegler, Head of Reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, to see about consulting the manuscript in person, as well as to discuss my interest in Fella’s illustrations. Dr. Ziegler very kindly drew my attention to the work of Esther Inglis, explaining that, “Fella is not the only person who ‘draws’ print.”[6] Dr. Ziegler linked me to her blog post on Inglis to see “how she copied an emblem from a printed book woodcut.”[7] To my surprise, the image to which Dr. Ziegler referred me was Inglis’s drawing of Boissard’s emblem! Inglis’s copy is very near to the original:


Fig. 4   Inglis’s drawing of Boissard’s emblem (1599). Folger MS V.a.93. (Click here to zoom in.)

If we turn to the self-portrait of Inglis shown in Fig. 1, from her Octonaries upon the vanitie and inconstancie of the world (1601), Inglis depicts herself with the tools for literary composition – ink and paper. Imitating and copying print seems to be, for Inglis, a means of defining herself not only as a female calligrapher, but also as a female author. Perhaps Inglis fashions herself as a sort of Mnemosyne.


The concluding sentence of Elspeth Yeo’s entry for Inglis in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reads: “Although her [Inglis’s] draughtsmanship was weak and she lacked originality, preferring to reproduce designs by others, the delicacy and precision of her calligraphy, particularly when working on a very small scale, was outstanding.” As I wrote last week, however, what interests me most about the images from Fella’s commonplace book, especially his illustration of the woodcut of sixteenth-century printer John Day, is “the delicate balance he strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.” This, too, informs my interest in Inglis.

In my next post, “The English Renaissance ‘Timeline’: Part III,” I will turn to other works by Inglis to suggest that she did not merely “reproduce designs by others,” nor did she necessarily “lack originality.” Like Fella, she “draws” print, but there are also apparent differences in her copied illustrations and calligraphic print – differences that she fashions with her own hands, as she indicates in Fig. 1, thus supplanting, in a unique way, the highly masculinized work of the English Renaissance printing press.

[1] All images identified as “Folger MS” or “FSL Collection” are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License:

[2] Elspeth Yeo, “Inglis, Esther (1570/71 – 1624),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] (Accessed via Arkyves, January 11, 2014).

[6] Georgianna Ziegler, personal communication, November 24, 2014.

[7] Ibid.


Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.




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